Ky. had 3rd highest percentage rose in drug-overdose deaths in the 2020 federal fiscal year; jumped after pandemic hit in March

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention graph, labeled by Kentucky Health News

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Drug-overdose deaths in Kentucky rose 50 percent in 2020, the third highest rate of increase in the nation, according to new federal data.

Only Washington, D.C., and Louisiana had greater increases than Kentucky: 61% and 54% respectively, from October 2019 through September 2020.

The preliminary data data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Kentucky had 1,956 overdose deaths in that 12-month period compared to 1,304 deaths in the previous 12 months.

“In addition to the stress caused by the pandemic, we believe the increase is due to a rise in illicit fentanyl and its analogs within the drug supply,” Van Ingram, director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, said in a prepared statement. “The problem also is exacerbated by the widespread availability of potent, inexpensive methamphetamine.”

An interactive CDC graphic shows the total of Kentucky overdose deaths in the previous 12 months increased in every month during the federal fiscal year, which ended Sept 30, 2020, but there was a marked increase when the pandemic began. The graphic shows the biggest jump happened in May, with an increase of 146 deaths over the previous 12-month period.

The most recent annual report by the state drug-control office reports 1,316 overdose deaths in calendar year 2019, an increase of 5% over the year before, when 1,247 were recorded. Kentucky saw its highest number of overdose deaths in calendar year 2017, at 1,566, and federal data indicate that the 2020 figure, once confirmed, will be higher.

Nationwide, overdose deaths increased 29% during the 2020 fiscal year. In the 12 months ending in September, preliminary data show more than 87,000 overdose deaths had been reported, and the CDC predicts there the actual total is likeliest to be 90,237.

Pandemic was a perfect storm

“Part of the reason that we saw such a drastic increase in overdoses was because Covid was kind of a perfect storm for addiction,” said Kelli Kinney, who works in marketing and client services at Central Kentucky Recovery, based in Cynthiana.

She then ticked off a long list of challenges, especially for people with addictions, that were brought on by the pandemic: People were out of work, resulting in a loss of routine and structure; they were getting money from unemployment benefits and stimulus checks; and the court systems, many of which were working remotely, were releasing people early, postponing trial dates and not regularly testing people for drugs as part of the probation and parole process.

“And then on top of that, our in-person meetings, self-help meetings, 12-step meetings, things like that — the majority of them shut down or went online,” she said. “So you lost that interpersonal communication.  One of the worst things someone in recovery can do is isolate and they were forced into isolation.”

Kinney added that these increases in overdose deaths were not a surprise to anyone who works in recovery. “You shut down meetings, you gave them money, there was no accountability. So I honestly believe we’re lucky that they are not higher.”
In recovery, she said, it’s important to have regular work.
“Structure is very important to recovery, and having a job is one of the most structured things that you can do because you have a set time to be there, a set time to take a break, a set time to go home and you have responsibilities,” she said. “Having a job and working in job is very big for someone in recovery.”

Kinney encouraged anyone thinking about addiction treatment to seek out an in-person meeting, which she said are beginning to open back up. As for a bright spot, she said they were making more referrals to inpatient facilities than they had in the past. She said this is because the pandemic has allowed some people to sign up for in-patient treatment who had not done so because of their work obligations.

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